Haitian-American writer Edwidge Danticat won widespread acclaim in 1994 with the release of her first novel, Breath, Eyes, Memory, and has since established herself in multiple genres — publishing everything from short stories, novels, criticism, essays and a memoir — though she prefers fiction because “in fiction, you are God.” Her work has been nominated multiple times for a National Book Award and she was awarded a MacArthur Genius grant in 2009.
I sat down with Danticat in Oberlin, OH to discuss Create Dangerously — a collection of nonfiction essays and her latest published work — as well as her thoughts on language, distance, immigration, and the roles of writers.
Liv Combe: My favorite story from Create Dangerously was your essay “The Other Side of the Water.” At one moment, your aunt asks you not to write about the death of your cousin from AIDS. “They say that everything they say to you ends up written down somewhere,” she says. You respond that you wish you could apologize, but that “this immigrant artist, like many other artists, is a leech and I needed to latch on.”
As a writer, you call yourself at different times a liar, a parasite, a leech, yet you also say that your role is to expose people to the beauty and the love in Haiti that people don’t usually see in the news. Which role as a writer do you feel you are most often filling?
Edwidge Danticat: Probably all of the above. In a way, writers are like sponges. We’re always trolling for stories, whether we realize it or not. And it only gets difficult when the people around us catch on! They’re like, “Oh, you’re writing a story, aren’t you?” And most of the time they’re wrong about the kind of story they think you’re writing.
But I feel like I’ve probably been all these things at different times. There are moments where you’re having an experience while at the same time, you’re outside of it, thinking what it would be like to write it. Maybe during those times you are more fully immersed, or maybe you’re not; you’re always this insider/outsider, because you’re sort of organizing things through narrative. And that doesn’t prevent you from having the full experience of surrendering to emotion, but you’re participating in things in two different ways. In this case, I’m still the cousin and this is still my aunt, but at the same time I’m seeing the story structure, the possibility of that. One of the things about writing is that your role keeps evolving all the time, and what you’re looking at [are] different things, [you’re looking at] different situations with different eyes.
What you said about the writer being an insider/outsider sounds a lot like how you talk about being an immigrant — being stuck somewhere in between two countries. Do you think if you weren’t an immigrant, if you hadn’t moved to the United States, your writing would be entirely different? Would you see yourself as a writer in a different way?
You know, I’m a big reader, so I’ve been able to read people who have never left their homes, and I’ve been able to read people who have wandered in different parts of the world. I think there are advantages to both. I think being close to the ground, observing a situation closely in the every day allows you a certain perspective, but also being in between, you know, it’s what Julia Alvarez calls “writing on the hyphen.” And I’ve always thought, for me, because I’ve benefitted from it so much — being able to read people who write from this particular place, this in-between place — I think people like that deserve their own literature. I think that’s an interesting place to write.
You only know what you know, so I don’t know what it would have been like — but if I’d never left Haiti, it would have been a whole different experience. I would have been writing differently.
Yeah, I guess that question was kind of grossly hypothetical, wasn’t it?
I would be writing in a different language, for one thing! It wouldn’t have been in English.
You did an interview with the Fiction Writers Review about a year ago where you said, “I sometimes think I am doing simultaneous interpretation while writing: the characters are speaking Creole, and I am interpreting for them.” I was wondering how your knowledge of language affects your writing, or the way you think about characters and dialogue. If you feel like you’re interpreting, does that change the way you write or think?
It’s interesting, because it’s just become the method. It’s just how it works. You know? It’s like, okay, this is how we function. It’s simultaneous to the point where I’m not even thinking about it. Like, I know that the people are not speaking the language, they’re not . . . it’s like watching these movies. You have two choices. You’re watching the miniseries about the French Revolution. . . it’s on American television; sometimes they have a Napoleon with an accent. And sometimes, which I think is a better choice, it’s just regular English. Because you know it’s Napoleon, you know it’s an interpretation. So I think that’s how it is to me in terms of the most primal translation. It just happens at the same time that you’re writing.
For me, the wonderful thing about this situation — and I guess that’s what’s great about American writing in my particular period of time — is that I’m not the only one doing it. There’s Junot Díaz, there’s Sandra Cisneros, there [are] all these people from other places who are immigrants or children of immigrants who are doing this in their own way. So, for me — talk about feeling less alone as a reader, but also feeling less alone as a writer in that, okay, I belong to this sort of stew, and we’re all doing that. Some of us are rebelling against italics! And it’s just part of the mix. It is what it is. And, I mean, sometimes when the writing is going good, you’re so transported in your own world and in your own writing that it just flows from that place.
Because I think we’re translating anyway. You know, whether [or not] you’re writing from the same language, you’re selectively plucking out moments in a character’s life that’s leading to some kind of epiphany or conclusion. You’re certainly not reporting everything they do in the day; it’s still like we’re selecting when we write fiction. Or even when we write nonfiction; when you start a nonfiction piece about someone picking their nose, you’re trying to say something about that person! You know what I mean? Everything is sort of leading in a certain way. I think it’s just a different kind of selection.
Maybe it’s because [of] the way I live between languages, but I see language as a tool. Like any other thing in writing, it’s not necessarily a choice for me, I feel like it’s just one of the other things that happened. And something wonderful happens, too, when these language meet. Because when you come from another language, English is so new, in a way. And [because of] all the possibilities of it, and things you can bend, and things that you might be too shy to do in your own language. It’s very exciting.
In that same interview, you said that you first wrote creatively in English — it just sort of happened that way and you continued with it. And you said, “Maybe English also offers a veil, some kind of distance that makes me bolder.” And in another interview in 2003 with The Progressive, you said that the “idea of just putting on a mask . . . was always something that was interesting to me because sometimes when we’re most shielded is when we’re boldest.” How does this idea of shielding yourself play into your concept of creating dangerously?
You know, that whole notion of creating dangerously I borrowed from Albert Camus, who in 1957 was saying, “To create today is to create dangerously.” And one of the things that he says also is that the writer is like everybody else: you’re on the galley, and you’re sort of rowing your oar against a tide and you’re trying to stay alive. I think you can take that from the most extreme, when people are writing on prison walls, to the most mundane, where people are just [too] shy to write, [who have] no other dangers than being ridiculed.
When I started writing I used to think that whatever it takes to get you past that hump, past those fears in that moment and situation where you’re able to [begin writing] but some inner thing is preventing you, I feel like whatever it takes, [do it, even] if it means hiding out somewhere. And [writing] requires that, it requires so much time alone, it requires, you know, so much hiding to expose yourself. And that’s the thing about writing fiction: with fiction, you can lie. That’s why I call myself a liar, a liar in terms of the fiction world. In fiction you can lie to tell these other truths and tales to reveal other things. So [we must do] whatever it takes, in a way, to get us there.
You’ve written memoirs, essays, novels, short stories, articles. When you start formulating a story in your head, do you see it as a certain one of those, or is there a default sort of genre that you like to write in? Or maybe “genre” isn’t the right world — maybe something like “form?”
No, “genre” is good. I mean, what I like most about the whole thing is the variety, the ability to have variety. I love writing fiction, probably more than other things because you have a kind of liberty with the material that you don’t have with nonfiction. I love being able to invent things. I love this ability to just invent, you know? So I love writing fiction: I love writing short fiction, I love writing long fiction.
But what I like most is not being told that, Oh, you just have to write this, you can only write that. I like being able to jump between genres, to do different things, because for me it keeps it all so exciting, and I feel like if I’m not doing this, I can be doing that.
In a 2007 interview with NPR you were called a “literary ambassador” for Haiti. How do you feel about that title, and also the responsibility that comes along with it? The implication is that you’re speaking for an entire country.
I feel like — because I’ve always lived near or in a Haitian community; in Haiti, obviously, when I was much younger, and then in the United States — I know a lot of [Haitian] people. I know the whole range of the experience. I know that it’s not monolithic. So I’ve always seen myself as one of many people who can carry that title. (Remarkably, there [are] a lot of people who don’t know [that] Haiti [has] a huge amount of literature — a little bit of it is in translation, but more could be.) So I never really saw myself as unique in this situation, because I know a lot of other people like me, who were writing like me. So I would say I’m one of many people like that.
I don’t think it’s useful or even accurate to say that one person can be a literary ambassador to any culture, because ultimately writers are writing from a singular point of view, and maybe others identify, and maybe others within your culture can be contrary. They can have totally opposite experiences. Sometimes — and I see it in a lot of my friends from different cultures who are writing here now — the harshest critics are people who are from the culture, people who know more, who know all the nuances. And in a way I think that’s very fair, because their expectations are a lot higher.
So, for me, knowing all that and living all that, I know that it’s impossible for one person to be the voice of any culture, especially a very layered and complicated one like Haitian culture.
Do you consider your writing political at all? You write about issues that are very political — issues of immigration, AIDS, terrorism, natural disasters, corrupt governments.
Well, saying it’s not political would also be political, in a way. Yeah, I consider it political. I mean, I don’t consider it like a tract — except when I do write tracts, like op-eds and things like that! But I consider it political.
What I’m also interested in, especially in the fiction that I write, is creating vivid characters, engaging human beings. Because sometimes people say, “Oh, it’s political, but it seems like you’re writing types,” [and] not just types, but stereotypes. I’m interested in writing about ordinary people in difficult situations: some of them romantic, some of them familial, some of them political.
Distance, whether it is death or immigration, is a theme that runs throughout a lot of your writing. In Create Dangerously you often mention the Creole phrase lòt bò dlo, which means, “on the other side of the water,” and can refer to death or physical distance. Does distance scare you at all, or is it something that’s more comforting or liberating than it is frightening?
It’s both. You know, because I think that part of the distance is also longing — longing for the physical landscape sometimes, longing for family members who are there, longing for some of the daily things you are missing in the lives of people you care about. And having this desire sometimes for your presence to be more ordinary, which I was more able to do when I was younger, to just kind of be there, just be hanging out. Visits tend to now be sort of purposeful, even the relaxing ones; they tend to be more purposeful because I’m like, “Oh, I want my girls to see this, or see that,” you know. There’s also that kind of longing that comes with hyper-alertness — “I have to see this, I have to see all of that” — especially in a place like Haiti that’s always changing.
[The distance isn’t always] comforting. There’s anxiety in it too. [Haiti] is identified for me by the people. Because what removes you from a place is just no longer having these personal connections, do you know what I mean? When my uncle died, for example, I lost a neighborhood, in a way. I lost a place to go back to. So I think that what keeps you bound, what keeps you connected, are these personal connections that are less easy to generalize in terms of the place. The place is created from ties with people you know, people you love. So at times parts of [the distance] are liberating, but the times with it are sort of [filled with] anxiety, filled with longing. One way that I fulfill part of that longing is visiting a place in my work — sort of recreating my version of it in my writing. Because in the writing you can combine different places, you can combine different people and create your own kind of land, or versions of that land.
A version of this interview first appeared in The Oberlin Review.